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Exploring at the Edge of Physical Endurance and Mental Clarity: Patrick Morris

Patrick Morris, NASA Space Grant recipient, with mentor Vincent Chen

Patrick Morris ’22 (left) has been researching how solving intellectual problems affects people’s ability to perform physical exercise with funding from a NASA Space Grant along with his mentor, Dr. Vincent Chen (right).

Five Georgian Court University (GCU) undergraduates received NASA Space Grants this academic year—a record number for the school. Each received a $2,000 grant for a space-related research project, conducted together with faculty mentors. “Textbooks concentrate on knowns, but often fail to mention what is unknown—it is the creativity of the researchers to look beyond,” says Anne Tabor-Morri, Ph.D., professor of physics, coordinator of the GCU NASA Science Outreach, and New Jersey NASA Space Grant representative.

In this final installment of our GCU Space Grant series, meet Patrick Morris ’22, a biology major from Freehold, New Jersey.

If scientific research had theme songs—cue up “Under Pressure” for Patrick Morris ’22 with regard to his NASA Space Grant project. The senior biology major’s research is titled “The Effect of Cognitive Demand on Exercise Capacity and Performance” and explores how solving intellectual problems affects people’s ability to perform physical exercise. The findings could have valuable future applications to astronauts and numerous other occupations where quick and accurate decision-making and cognitive skills are essential.

Patrick’s research enrolls men and women ages 18 to 35, more than 90 percent of them GCU student-athletes, asking them to complete two exercises. In the first, subjects undergo an Agility T-Test—essentially a shuttle run—and then are shown an algebra problem for three seconds—and repeat the shuttle run, solving the problem as they run and maintain intricate footwork. The second exercise asks participants to run on a treadmill, with settings increasing in speed and angle, as long as they can until they decide to stop. As a follow-up, they run the treadmill again, this time taking an N-BACK test, a pattern recognition exercise commonly used in psychology.

Currently, the study has had about 30 subjects, with a goal of at least 60. One might wonder why the subjects would participate in such physically and mentally challenging exercises for free. The answer is: In addition to contributing to science, the student-athletes learn valuable information about themselves. The treadmill segment includes VO2 Max, an analysis of maximal oxygen consumption during exercise. “For student-athletes interested in enhancing their performance, VO2 Max gives them insight on how well they’re truly exercising,” explains Patrick. “Afterward, many participants say, ‘That was interesting. I’ve never done that before.’ Now these athletes have a personal starting point on which to work to improve.”

An Idea and a Team

These research exercises are grueling for a purpose—and have a real-life beginning. “I started thinking about this research when I was an Army medic,” said Patrick, who served in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom and recently retired at the rank of sergeant. “When I was deployed, I noticed my junior medics would make a lot more rash decisions and errors during stressful field situations than they would in classroom training situations.”

How people perform under duress (such as the military and even as astronauts might experience) became core to the research Patrick is conducting with Vincent Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science. Patrick had never taken one of Dr. Chen’s classes (another professor helped them connect), but he has come to value their working relationship and the exercise science professor’s trust. “I’ve worked on research projects before at GCU under other professors, but this is the first one where I’ve been involved from the beginning using my own ideas. I brought my research suggestion to Dr. Chen, and we worked together to develop the study design and protocol,” he said.

There’s also a collaborative, “open table” atmosphere among the research team. While Patrick is the student principal investigator, he has two other students in lead positions on his team, Krzysztof Paczesny ’22 and Niklas Laenger ’22, both interested in careers in biomedical and/or biochemistry fields, as well as other students—primarily biology and exercise science majors—who run the exercises with study subjects. As Patrick notes, “any of us can say, ‘Listen, this isn’t working. Can I propose something else instead?’”

Research opportunities, such as those funded through NASA Space Grants, as well as being a GCU tradition, are a valuable part of a college education, believes Dr. Chen. “While the classroom allows students to acquire knowledge, conducting research empowers them to apply it and explore and discover new things,” he said. “Student researchers learn how a fact is properly discovered through a precise, rigorous and deliberate scientific process—which is especially important in our era of information overload. It trains students to think critically while being creative, which are the abilities and qualities I want my students to have when they depart from my lab.” 

Specific to Patrick’s research, says Dr. Chen, “Pat’s project has engaged 18 student researchers, and I believe they all have learned a lot and will continue to contribute to science and society, as they have gained critical and creative thinking skills through the process.”

One of the learnings of any scientific research: troubleshooting. For example, Patrick and his team observed that subjects’ capacity for exercise might vary from one day to the next, whether because of illness, a late study night, or not eating breakfast. According to Patrick, “We’d see someone perform at 90 percent capacity one day and then see it really drop the next time. We had to first figure out why the change and then respond, in some instances by developing new protocols or workarounds.”

Patrick, a member of multiple collegiate honor societies, is experiencing a different type of learning experience than that of the classroom.

“Anything can go wrong in a research project; participants quit, equipment fails, computers crash . . . you name it. It can be very frustrating,” said Dr. Chen. “Pat has learned to face the unpleasant surprises and deal with the problems. Through this process, and because he is intelligent and mature, I have seen him advance his problem-solving skills.”

Patrick hopes his research will make a difference for many people, whether astronauts, pilots, or others in high-stress situations. Maybe even himself. Patrick will begin medical school next fall at New Jersey’s Cooper Medical School of Rowan University—with aspirations to one day enter one of the specialties that requires fast acting, fast thinking, and staying cool under pressure: trauma surgery.

Other student profiles in the GCU Space Grant Series

Diana Gallego: “The Impact of Mental Health on the Human Autonomic Nervous System”

Emily Humphries: “Comparing Algorithmic Efficiencies of MATLAB, Mathematica and Maple”

Angelina Monaco: “The Effect of Isolation and Loss of Social Networks with Applications in Space Exploration”

Victoria Vonfrolio: “Properties of Special Matrices in Mathematics”

NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project is a national network of colleges and universities working to expand opportunities for Americans to understand and participate in NASA’s aeronautics and space projects by supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research and public outreach efforts. Georgian Court has been participating for approximately two decades.

Story contributed by freelance writer Sheila Noonan. Photos by Jim Connolly.

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About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by Money.com and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, GCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.